Why did I choose to write an absurdist novel?

Declan Toohey on how his debut, Perpetual Comedown, came into being

Declan Toohey

My first novel, Perpetual Comedown, is an absurdist novel. This is a somewhat dangerous thing for me to say at the outset of publication, since absurdism as a philosophical concept is out of fashion, uncool, immature, even embarrassing.

Absurdism is a subset of existentialism, which among other things inspires images of pretentious writers who wear black turtlenecks, or who have a cigarette in one hand and a book by Jean-Paul Sartre in the other.

More recently, as one meme had it, existentialism is the beloved literature of the contemporary softboi, who expresses shock that their dates haven’t read a single word of Albert Camus.

Why, then, did I choose to write an absurdist novel? And for the uninitiated, what even is an absurdist novel?


I’ll start with the latter. And with that a note on existentialism more generally.

Existentialism is the school of philosophy typically associated with French writers of the post-war period, namely Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beavoir and Albert Camus, even though Camus loathed the term and insisted that he was an absurdist.

But existentialism’s roots reach back to the 19th century, to Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, who as the grand-daddies of existentialism have some overlap in their philosophies, but fundamentally are quite different.

A devout Christian, Kierkegaard produced the bulk of his corpus in the 1840s. He had an interesting love life, an excruciating death, but his primary contribution to philosophical ideas is arguably that of the leap of faith.

In Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1846), Kierkegaard argues that religious faith is at root unsound, since the faithful individual believes in a god for which there is no discernible proof. This causes a tremendous amount of personal anxiety and confusion. However, Kierkegaard insists that the best way to mitigate this anxiety is to throw rationality to the wind and to make an absurd leap of faith into God’s loving arms, irrespective of whether those arms are there or not.

Smash cut to the 1880s, where Friedrich Nietzsche proposes his idea of eternal recurrence via the following question: If you could re-live your entire life – its every moment of elation and every ounce of despair – would you do so?

Nietzsche’s answer was a resounding, euphoric yes, which he formulated in one of the strangest philosophical works of all time, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883). There he reflects on how the eternal recurrence is an unusual if irrational affirmation.

For instance, why re-live a life of sorrow and heartbreak, even if it contains glimmers of happiness? To do so would be silly if absurd, would it not?

Be that as it may, Nietzsche believes that this affirmation of the eternal recurrence is one we should all aspire to.

And there we arrive at the crux of existentialist philosophy: that life and death are fundamentally absurd.

This, today, is not an extravagant claim. It’s a cliché. Picture the floppy-haired teen who trudges around in the rain, who curses the world and mumbles at all times, who probably has a lip piercing and idolises Elliot Smith – and you’re bang on the money.

An absurdist novel is one that dramatises life’s absurdities, often with characters who somehow find happiness within it

And yet Kierkegaard’s and Nietzsche’s ideas found new life in 1940s Europe, where Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus argued that, absurd though life is, it’s nevertheless possible to find happiness within it.

This was captured most famously, perhaps, in Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), whose eponymous figure is condemned to roll forevermore a boulder up a hill, only for it fall back down each time he does so, but whom, Camus insists, we must imagine happy.

So that’s existentialism and absurdism. In a nutshell. If you didn’t know. (If you did, kindly excuse my simplifications.) An absurdist novel, by extension, is one that dramatises life’s absurdities, often with characters who somehow find happiness within it.

“Wonderful!” you say. “But why the hell did you write one?”

Well, for various reasons. Three, to be precise.

At a juncture

For one, like most writers, I write what I like.

I’ve always been attracted to the zanier side of literature, to books that take themselves seriously as much as they don’t. That are capable of making the reader laugh and that don’t fully cohere with artistic conventions.

Prior to writing the novel I was at a juncture in my life; I was unsure whether to pursue academic writing or fiction. (Two equally precarious fields into which no sane person ought to go unless they have to.) And though for many years I’d felt an affinity to both, I believed the time had come to commit to one.

So I applied for several PhD programs in English literature and got in, but when no funding was forthcoming I moved to Nova Scotia, Canada, partially to pursue a love interest and partly to get out of Ireland. And while in Nova Scotia I wrote outlandish stories and meagre essays, the latter of which were inspired by the third and final thing that prompted Perpetual Comedown.

Something not uncommon to several Irish books of late.

Yes – before moving to Nova Scotia, before my PhD applications, I completed an MA in Film at Queen’s University, Belfast, and in the middle of this degree I had a breakdown.

Like all breakdowns, it wasn’t pretty. There was an evening on which I was clinically psychotic and a six-month period during which I was dangerously depressed. I was regularly suicidal. I had just turned 21.

The one thing that brought me solace was books, specifically those which engaged with philosophical conundrums and life’s trickier questions, like how to stay alive even when you don’t want to

At the peak of my breakdown – which is to say, the start – I moved back to Kildare, with my family, for two months. In retrospect, I was more ill than I let on. I felt profoundly unreal, was acutely paranoid. I was terrified at the thought of hospitalisation, even though I can say now that that’s where – for a period – I probably should have been.

Eventually I returned to Belfast and finished my degree. But I no longer had any professional or personal interest in film; I couldn’t even watch films; they physically made me feel sick. Even comedies – preposterously – injected me with an unshakeable anxiety.

The one thing that brought me solace was books, specifically those which engaged with philosophical conundrums and life’s trickier questions, like how to stay alive even when you don’t want to.

Convinced suicide was my destiny, I became unhealthily obsessed with how various artists had died. If I encountered a new writer, musician, painter, filmmaker, I often raced to the bottom of their Wikipedia page, and if their cause of death was suicide, I usually had a panic attack. (I recall one in the IFI’s DVD/book shop, where for some reason I learned of Antonin Artaud’s death.)

Even though I was irrationally convinced I was doomed to a lifetime of anguish, and even though my recovery struck me as a wholly absurd idea, I slowly became better.

Gradually, I healed.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that when the pandemic hit in March 2020 and I was laid off, I started work on an absurdist novel.

An alternate Ireland

At the time I only wrote short stories and was still living in Nova Scotia. As a full-time bartender I had neither the stamina nor the time to write a substantial novel, I told myself. I had written one previously but it was – and remains – so terrible that its presence in the wider world would jeopardise my every chance of being taken seriously as a writer.

All the same, my partner and I moved in with her parents in Lunenburg County, Nova Scotia, and what slowly emerged was an absurdist novel in which one Darren Walton, a doctoral student at Trinity, loses his mind while trying to crack an elaborate conspiracy: the existence of an alternate Ireland.

What is clear to me now is that Perpetual Comedown, among other things, is a farewell to any academic and essayistic ambitions I once harboured.

Those who read the novel will quickly note the satirical tone with which Darren describes his academic milieu, but there’s an underlying sense of love or passion there too. He’s fond of that world, just as I was once fond of it. And even now, having finished writing the damn thing, I’m not sure what Darren’s final stance on academia is.

There may be those, perhaps, who will read Perpetual Comedown as autofiction, or thinly-veiled autobiography. But in spite of the surface similarities between Darren and myself, overall the novel required a great deal of what Colm Tóibín recently said is the key requisite for writing fiction – the act of self-suppression.

And so, ultimately, Perpetual Comedown is not a memoir. If it was, you’d do well to steer clear of me at all costs.

Then again, if you decide to read it, you might do just that anyway.

Perpetual Comedown is published by New Island